[Editor's Note: Items clarified or corrected are in bold.]
By Mary Alice Murphy
More than 50 people attended the first Gila Area Watershed and Forest Restoration Collaborative meeting held Jan. 9, 2018 at the Grant County Veterans Memorial Business and Conference Center.
Kim Kostelnik of SAKAK Natural Resource Consulting served as facilitator on behalf of the New Mexico Forest Industry Association.
The group was invited to present by District 38 New Mexico Rep. Rebecca Dow and District 49 Rep. Gail Armstrong. Martha Cooper of The Nature Conservancy helped with the organization and Jane Janson of the Small Business Development Center at Western New Mexico University helped pull the invitees together, with opportunities for businesses to start or expand forestry work.
Dow spoke first. "In northern New Mexico, they have been doing large scale forest and watershed restoration to improve the environment and prevent catastrophic fires. The effort brings jobs and research. We want more conversation on the issue down here in the Gila National Forest. Please contact me with questions and what you would like to see done."
Armstrong said: "We've been doing some similar things in Catron County. We need jobs conducive to the community."
Kostelnik said it was good to have legislators on board with the efforts.
Cooper said she had talked to Dusty Hunt of the Grant Soil and Water Conservation District, which has done similar projects. "They have a project of 237 acres in the Upper Mimbres that needs treatment. A component of the grant is to collaborate on the Gila. That's why we have convened a meeting of contractors and the challenges and costs they face, along with the constraints of the Forest Service. We invited folks from other parts of the community and region, including members of the Rio Grande Water Fund and the New Mexico forest industry."
She noted that other projects have taken place in the Cibola National Forest and in Zuni. The Chama Peak Alliance has worked on private and public land. The Wild Turkey Foundation has also collaborated.
"These meetings as convened here will happen over the next couple of years," Cooper said. "The Grant SWCD is trying to convene people over a shared objective to increase treatment. We have a lot of history down here of people trying to come together on issues. One thing we all agree on is watershed treatment and restoration."
Ty Bays of the Grant SWCD said he is proud of Dusty Hunt, who has been an advocate for forest and watershed treatment. The district did a treatment on the Mangas in the Burro Mountains watershed. "It's part of our mission to treat watersheds."
Cooper said Hunt had told her the area needed to be retreated.
Kostelnik said the Grant County Eco-Watershed group has been meeting and determining when and where to do projects. "We're looking today at the whole Gila National Forest. Communication is an absolute must. Maybe a project needs a little more money. If you have a project, you have to figure out how to leverage and match each other's dollars. It's not just the agencies' responsibility. We all play and recreate in the woods. It is our responsibility as citizens to get management done. Get businesses involved. With the Rio Grande Water Fund, we've gotten Bohannon-Huston as a member of the Fund. The Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District and the Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Authority have put up extra funds for forest treatments."
She said the organizers asked the Forest Service to participate to let people know what needs to be done.
Art Telles of the Gila National Forest said he started his career at the Black Range in 1997. He is now staff officer for natural resources on the Gila. He introduced Gabe Partido, fuels specialist, and Lisa Mizuno in GNF planning.
"This meeting is perfect timing, because we are going through trying to streamline NEPA, consultation and the environmental issues on the forest," Telles said. "In forest planning, we have identified that we need a lot more treatments. It's one of our biggest concerns. We have a lack of people on the forest. A lot of treatments will have to be done with fire."
Partido said the forest can sell cut timber, but being able to cut it depends on funding. "We have funding to treat about 2,000 acres. With a co-op, we can bump it up to about 5,000 acres."
"We have to use fires, thinning and we need partners," Telles said. "Over the past five years, we have gone to forest-wide planning, although on the Gila, we've been doing it a while." He cited the areas where treatment has been accomplished. They include the Negrito eco-management area and the Burro planning area.
Partido said the forest has completed 60,000 acres in the Negrito and just did a sale. "We will be treating 55,000 acres in the Reserve Management District. Seventy percent will be done with burning, but the rest will be thinning, creating sales."
Telles said, in the Quemado Ranger District Escudilla landscape, about 189,000 acres with 12 watershed restoration areas are planned. A lot of it is piñon-juniper, plus some wet mixed conifer. "We have lost a lot of wet mixed conifer due to catastrophic high-intensity fires. We will burn while snow is on the ground. It will benefit wildlife habitat."
Mizuno said for the NEPA process, the forest is developing the Environmental Impact Statement. The alternatives all have restoration areas, about 80,000 acres worth, with 30,000 in mixed conifer. Plus, some is for range improvement, as well as riparian and wetland areas. "We will also be doing maintenance on old flood control dams. The New Mexico Environment Department is dealing with environmental issues. Others participating include the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, State Forestry, and Fish and Wildlife is interested."
Partido said the forest is finishing up the Slaughter area, of which about 12,000 acres were thinned and a portion was burned.
Telles said in the Ecudilla portion of the Luna Planning Area of the Glenwood Ranger District, NEPA has not started yet. "We also have a lot of burns planned in the Upper Mimbres and Signal Peak area."
Partido said the proposal is for burning 65,000 acres in the Signal Peak area, and 52,000 acres in the Upper Mimbres will include 7,000 for thinning and grassland restoration, with about 35,000 with prescribed fire. "We have treated almost 3,000 acres with thinning."
Telles said prescribed burns above Lake Roberts are being done, but some need retreatment. "The Silver City District project in the Burros has been going on for about 15 years. We are looking at secondary burns."
He said in the Black Range, in the Indian Peaks area a lot of grassland restoration is needed. The majority will be prescribed burns near Beaverhead and Winston.
Partido noted that every year the forest plans out for the next five years. "In 2019, we propose treating Poverty Creek to Snow Lake down to the Aldo Leopold Wilnerness primarily with burning, but also with timber removal. We are preparing for 500,000 board feet. We sell 100,000 board feet at a time. We do it in stages."
Telles said it will be covered by small mills, which said they need the timber.
He described the three different levels of NEPA. If there are not a lot of issues, they use categorical exclusion. The next level is documentation of NEPA adequacy, if the lead agency determines the proposed action has been adequately studied previously. The most stringent is the environmental assessment, with concise written analysis of a proposed action's possible effects to determine whether they are potentially significant enough to warrant further study. They result in an environmental impact statement.
Requirements for NEPA study include endangered species, heritage resources (archaeological), and cultural resources.
"The Forest Service is trying to streamline its processes," Telles said. "On the maps, you will see a lot of areas with heritage clearances done, and a lot with endangered species clearances completed."
An attendee said he saw a lot of areas that said NEPA yes.
Telles said they are areas that the State Historic Preservation Office let the forest get through NEPA without a full NEPA. With burning, archaeological sites have to be pretreated. Implementation ready is different from NEPA cleared.
Partido said NEPA ready means the clearances have been done for environmental analysis. "They are shovel-ready. In the Upper Mimbres, 7,000 acres are ready, but only 2,000 have been prepared. Where it says NEPA yes on the maps, the environmental analysis has been completed."
Telles said the forest prioritizes but may only have funding for the top two projects. "With partnerships, we can get a lot more done."
The same attendee asked if these were areas he could potentially work in to remove small biomass. His question was indirectly answered.
Partido said the biggest challenges have been cleared, but a lot more acres are ready "than we have the capacity to treat. It's why it's important to form collaborations to restore more landscape."
Kostelnik said the New Mexico Forest Industry Association has Stewardship Agreements with the Forest Service for only New Mexico, because the NMFIA functions only in the state. "The Cibola has taken advantage by putting money in. We put out proposals to the industry, and Forestry and the contractor work together."
Partido said the advantage is the project gets done faster.
"I follow state procurement regulations," Kostelnik confirmed. "We go to the NMFIA members first, then next to other New Mexico contractors."
A man who said he had driven in from Iowa said he is a New Mexico native.
Kim Clark, local resident, asked if the same things being done in the Cibola National Forest could be done on the Gila.
"Yes, we can do them on the Gila under a state agreement," Kostenik said.
A man asked about what is going into the river.
Telles said during the Escudilla NEPA process, "it's why we have 12 action plans to address water quality under a water restoration action plan. The Forest Service does water monitoring, too, in a different process."
Mizuno said the Forest Service looks at state water quality standards and works toward those standards. "Yes, we need to improve the water quality at Escudilla."
Partido said those wishing to contract to work with the Gila National Forest must make sure best practices are done. "I work with water management and the biologist to make sure best practices are used."
The man who asked about low-value biomass asked what the time frame is for contractors. Kostelnick said usually a two-week notice is sent out.
"I need to be able to monitor activities, so I would like to see how soon you are ready, so I can plan out one to two to five years out," the man asked.
"That's one of the reasons we want to bring everyone together, so they know when things are planned," Kostelnik said. She said in the northern part of New Mexico various agencies work together with the Forest Service, including the Bureau of Land Management.
Telles noted the Gila does not sit next to large cities. "Silver City is the largest in the region and it has a limited amount of dollars."
Dow asked how to make the Gila a priority.
An attendee said: "More people need to be at the table."
Glenn Griffin said his company proposed a small project four years ago, but it took three years to get it accepted, and then state funding was reduced. "You have to be patient. It's hard to keep a crew together. Last year, we were a go, but SHPO said no archaeological study had been done."
Kostelnik said everyone knows that over the past few years, every state agency's budget has been gutted. "We keep telling agencies, we need archaeological studies done before we get contractors."
"We do partial sampling, but cannot implement without a full survey," Telles said.
A man got no answer to his question about whether the Forest Service can bring in people from outside the state.
Cooper said, with the Collaborative Forest Restoration Plan, 2,000 acres are cleared for treatment. "We have an existing CFRP for these collaborative meetings to determine what would work here."
Dow said Congress and Rep. Steve Pearce had added an amendment to a recent bill to provide money for southern New Mexico restoration.
Kostelnik said it may not be new money. Partido said it may be earmarked just for a specific project.
A woman noted there are only four archaeologists on the Gila. "It takes time, because we have to walk the whole 2,000 acres."
Telles said the budget for the Gila is now $15 million. "It was as high as $22 million for everything. The Gila has not gone through the stewardship process. We are down on the number of biologists and down on the number of archaeologists.
"That's why we've got to move forward as a group," Kostelnik said.
Partido said over the past four years, each district continues to update its five-year plan. Each district lays out its priorities. The districts get together and out of the individual lists they develop the priorities.
The man asking about biomass said: "If I have a business and there are 3,000 acres where I could get low-value biomass, what do I need to do?"
Kostelnik said: "Bring in other businesses. Say this is my backyard."
In answer to the same man's question about the purpose of this first meeting, Kostelnik said this meeting was broad. "At the next meeting, we want to make sure we have subgroups for each interest."
Gordon West of Gila Woodnet said the community had a robust jobs and biodiversity coalition from 2000-2006. "We know how to do this and bring it back to life."
Telles said the group was a positive influence. "We went to other priority areas, even though the Gila had been competitive. With the increase in target fuels from Washington, we have a huge advantage with collaboratives like this and the region needing to produce more."
Kostelnik said in the northern part of the state, "when there was extra money, we got it. It helps when the state realizes a group of people is committed to getting the job done."
Dow apologized for having to leave for another meeting in Las Cruces. "I'm so glad we're working together and this is going forward."
Kostenik said the group would get notes out to everyone who had signed up.
Janson said it might be helpful to have a list of kinds of potential partnerships.
Cooper said she has created categories, such as state, federal, non-profit and industry.
"No one is excluded," Kostelnik said.
Doug Boykin, state forester at the Socorro District, spoke. "Although we look at the whole state as one, we have recently restaffed an office here at 575-388-2210."
"At State Forestry, we take pots of money and apply them where needed," Boykin said. "The purpose is forest restoration. If we get the trees right, everything else works. We also have wildland-urban interface (WUI) projects for private lands, with a 50-50 cost share. About 2,500 acres have been treated on the Socorro District. On non-federal lands north of Pinos Altos, we did 1,500 to 2,000 acres."
The Forest Health Initiative was created to combat insect and disease. "We used several funds from the state on public lands near Georgetown about a year ago. For watershed restoration funding from Game and Fish, every time someone buys ammunition, it puts money into the fund. We did work close to McKnight and 5,000 acres in Collins Park, as well as on the Bar 6. On another project, along with BLM, we did a project at the monastery north of Pinos Altos. For the WUI and the National Forest Initiative, the Grant SWCD is the fiscal agent. The Water Trust Fund is one that needs to have access here. "
Kostelnik explained the Water Trust Board works with all state and local agencies for water projects. She said the nonprofit Jornada Resource Conservation and Development is working to treat watershed in the Gila.
Boykin said a CFRP program is also doing a proposal with the Gila National Forest as the primary beneficiary. "The Prescribed Fire Council is building a contingent of bodies and equipment. In the fall, the bodies are elsewhere taking care of burns in other areas. The landowner would provide the overhead."
A representative of the New Mexico Soil and Water Conservation Districts, George Chavez, said: "Basically, we support locally limited conservation. We provide the capacity, including administration, technological assistance and financial assistance. We have agreements with lots of agencies, as well as non-governmental organizations to provide Natural Resource Conservation Services' EQIP (Environmental Quality Incentives Program). We have brought in close to $20 million for tech and financial assistance. We have a range and soil health initiative on public lands. Range permittees can apply for money to apply best practices. That includes ranchers on public lands. We have a continuous sign-up for our programs."
Kostelnik said Soil and Water Conservation Districts can also apply. "The money can go on any lands. Get together with partners and leverage it. Keep each other informed, so we can compete nationally."
"You need to get ready now, so when the funding comes down, all the planning is done," Chavez said. "Start now."
Mick Deubel of New Mexico Forestry asked if the funds on public lands could be used for planning to which Chavez replied: "Yes. There is funding set aside for planning."
Deubel asked if it could be spent on heritage planning.
"Yes, we call it technical assistance," Chavez said. "We have even done endangered species. We do field surveys."
Bays asked who sets the rules on the archaeological review.
Telles said SHPO. Partido said the state office sets the rules based on the National Historic Preservation Act.
"It seems ridiculous to do archaeological surveys if fire has gone through multiple times," Bays said.
"The law says if a fire is set it disturbs the ground," Partido replied.
Kostelnik encouraged everyone to sign in to receive further information.